On the pursuit of happiness

Many of Jefferson's ideas have a lasting legacy, but perhaps none more so than the pursuit of happiness. That has become the essence of the American dream, the point of middle-class existence worldwide. This, rather than all the men are born equal, have become self-evident. 

However, the celebration of the pursuit of happiness obscured complicated questions on how to be happy. We may assume that the answer is straightforward, that happiness comes from the acquisition of more, bigger houses, cars, clothes, jewellery etc., alongside more and more power over others. But both scientific explanations and everyday experience point to the opposite. Happiness, we know, comes not from Dopamine, a hormone that gets released when we 'achieve' something, but from Serotonin and Oxytocin, those which get released from making others happy and bonding with them. The kick from buying something bigger only lasts until someone with even bigger something turns up, which invariably happens as we climb the social ladder. In more than one sense, heaven isn't really up there but one needs to return to the ground to find it.

So, what to make of the happiness culture? Why do we live in the eternal hope of achieving happiness, a state which, by definition, confirms only the lack of it? For the acquisitive happiness, the only route to it lies through the misery of others. Our state of happiness is not unlike the people of the Omelas, that La Guin story which presents the pursuit in such stark terms, where happiness is only sustained by the existence of unhappy people. And, that's the problem with this ideal of the 'pursuit' - there is actually no happiness in the Elysium because one must only define the fortune against the backdrop of other's misfortune. Nothing else would really matter.

So, therefore, there are two models before us. One is the biological model, borne out before us by our lived experience when we truly feel happy watching other people's happiness, and the other is a cultural one, which equates happiness with what we have and promote a certain idea who should be considered happy. At the individual level, we balance the two by increasingly drawing narrower circles around us, trying to draw that happiness feeling from making happy the members of our family, at once producing the Oxytocin that we need to survive as well as not succumbing to the cultural stereotype of do-gooding foolishness.

In reality, therefore, the pursuit of happiness is really a pursuit of selfishness, the search for a biologically awkward mode of living. And, it is economically necessary, as only by convincing them of this particular idea of happiness, one can truly limit the agency of small people. That humans have no other power than to withdraw their two inalienable attributes - their labours and their desires - was well understood by the people who stood up to the powerful, people like Jesus or Gandhi; but they can't even contemplate their own agency as long as they remain locked in to this unfulfilling pursuit of fulfilment. The wrong idea of happiness that we live by, as it turns out, is an essential ingredient of our misery.

But the limits to power, one hopes, comes from within. The circle of selfishness is self-corrupting, as it helps to pass on to succeeding generations the opposite set of values other than are needed even to pursue happiness. The urge to look after the well-being of our offspring makes each succeeding generation a little too entitled, a little too idle, until their sloth and idleness undo the very chain of command and control. It is the Rome problem, which was destroyed not by the immigrants as we try to read it, but by prosperity, its own version of the pursuit of happiness.

   

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